In 2013, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton broke out of the festival circuit with his widely acclaimed film Short Term 12. The film about a short-term residential foster care facility starred Brie Larson and provided a nuanced and at times heartbreaking look into the lives of some of the most vulnerable children. The Glass Castle is Cretton’s follow-up project based on a memoir of the same name by Jeannette Walls. In this film we are treated to the kind of family dysfunction that leads to Short Term 12. Yet despite what has to be rich source material (disclaimer, I have not read the book) The Glass Castle fails to portray its complicated characters with the nuance required to fully appreciate their lives, feelings, and the greater themes of the film.
Larson stars as Jeannette Walls, a woman who is newly engaged and trying to find a place for her vagabond, squatter parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) in her life. Embarrassed by their lifestyle choices, and haunted by her unstable childhood under her parent’s many roofs, Jeannette fights to squeeze into a sterile, high society life with her fiancé David (Max Greenfield) that she knows deep down is a tough fit. The film jumps back and forth in time between Jeannette’s childhood in the 60s and 70s, and her adult life in 1989. Throughout the course of the film we piece together the major events in Jeannette’s life that fed her growing resentment of her parents and her desire to part ways with them when she came of age.
Memoirs are tough to adapt to film, primarily because it’s difficult to judge the reality in someone else’s experience. It’s also hard to portray a strong enough story arc for characters whose memories are constantly screwing with the facts as they happened. Throw a little “Hollywood magic” into the mix and the result is even more cloudy. For instance, in the film, Rex decides to swear off alcohol cold turkey telling Jeannette that no matter what happens, she is not under any circumstances allowed to give him a drink. Fast-forward to the following day and Rex is going through painful withdrawal. Jeannette goes to his room and sees her father writhing and screaming in pain, begging her for a drink, saying that he’s dying and if she doesn’t get him one he will die. She refuses, he curses her out screaming and she runs away crying into her sister’s arms. The next day, Rex is feeling better and joins his children outside where they are playing, trying to escape his screaming. He smiles, they smile, and it starts to lightly snow as they hug and jump around in a circle.
As much as I want to believe that’s exactly how it happened, snow and all, the truth remains that the sequence is problematic. It’s one of many in the film that covers trauma in a cozy blanket to soothe a stressed out audience. It also, I’m sure, acts as a justifier for Jeannette. Time, the human brain (and maybe Hollywood), paints the memory with a slightly rosier hue so as to uphold the image of Rex she wants to have of him whether it’s true or not. Rex and Rose Mary come off better than they probably should in The Glass Castle because the film never wants to push them too far afield.
The film’s leniency on its offending characters’ abusive behaviors is something they can get away with because all four children, miraculously (and that word is an understatement), make it through the worst of it relatively unscathed. They all grow to be “normal,” functioning adults with lives and jobs who can sit around a table at Thanksgiving and laugh about the memory of their crazy ol’ dad. In that way, the film relies on one of my least favorite stereotypes of people who grow up in hardship somehow being all the more interesting for it. Ask anyone whether or not they would have rather been fed by their parents and kept safe in their beds or have a crazy story to tell at parties and I think we know what the answer would be. Because for every kid that does make it out, twice as many do not.
I don’t want to paint an entirely negative picture of The Glass Castle (too late, I know). Despite some issues with the script, the performances manage to elevate this film and instill some enjoyment in the viewing experience. Harrelson does a fine job in a role that utilizes his signature style (drunk) and Brie Larson does what she can in emoting her character’s complicated feelings towards her parents. The child actors are also stellar and make the 60s/70s scenes the best in the film.
The Glass Castle is a perfectly fine film if you can forgive its handling of abuse with kid gloves. As the film’s tagline goes, you can find beauty in the struggle. But there’s also pain in the struggle and it’s worthy of deeper exploration and a much more meaningful payoff.
The Glass Castle opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.